I watched my father growing a garden made out of cactus and succulents in the backyard of our house. The sky was always very big and very blue when he worked on his creation. He carved it out of the brick steps that led up to the pool. Plain and predictable white suburban stairs, the ordinary life of the racial elite in 1980’s South Africa, glistening with water and the smell of braaivleis. My father was those things, and also nut brown in his cut-off denim shorts, inserting objects and magic into the garden he grew over those stairs under the sun. He made one for each of his three daughters. Was mine on the end or in the middle? I don’t remember that detail, just that in the end all three gardens merged into one. I watched the tossing of the soil, the setting of the rocks and stones, shards of statues, icons, glass pieces and the spikes of cacti gathered on walks in the veld and koppies that still surrounded Alberton back then. Those walks where me and my sister would trot behind him, learning how to use our feet like noses to sniff out potential traps and trips on the ground. My father would stop and pull up plants, take cuttings. Sometimes producing a frying pan and a fire to make bacon and eggs. I can’t say that we were part of it so much as spectators, watching. I did learn some things. How to pull a piece of a cactus plant off and stick it into a new pot where it would magically keep growing, without roots. You don’t need roots to grow. What a lesson I think now, looking back. The garden became ever more outlandish and charged with sorcery and indifference. I loved to watch it. At night I would explore its perimeters, finding glow worms clinging to aloes. I have stopped collecting cacti now. I last had them ten years ago, a small collection on the windowsill in my house in Brixton. After that, they fell away. Like my memories of my father’s garden, the one he made for us as an expression of his Self. My fingers are humming with the energy of it. Our relationship has been so problematic for so long that the garden was forgotten. And it was something that I can say with certainty was an aspect of him that I can love and grow from. For a very long time I have not mourned the loss of that home. I know that this is in part because of the problematic politics that surrounded its situation within a place marked by white priviledge. Better to let it die unmourned or acknowledged. It leaves me with a question: can beauty ever come out of evil? Can the essence of a pure and real love grow out of a place that could not continue to exist? I find the answer in the cactus. You don’t need roots to grow. And with patience, a flower as beautiful as the dawn will blossom. I think of the comments written by white South Africans on Facebook, barbed and mean spirited, that cling with misunderstanding to that statue of Rhodes, as if roots of any kind are better than none. I am the cactus that flowered. If only they knew how easy it can be to let go.
Sitting under a big old tree in some unusually warm February sun. It’s the second day of this winter heat wave, and tiny, beautiful yellow and purple crocuses are pushing their way out the ground in response, as they do every year in London. I guess we are always surrounded by metaphors for the tension and relationship between the old and new; the emergent and already-existing. Dotted around St George’s churchyard, the home of the big old tree, are these rockerys, spilling over with succulent shrubs, stones and bushes. They are sturdy and gruff rather than beautiful. These are plants that are good at surviving. I love them for their delicate toughness. On closer inspection, I see that the rockerys are constructed out of the old gravestones that would’ve covered this churchyard back in the day. There are the inscriptions… “dedicated to the memory of….”. Some are jagged and broken, some whole, all several hundred years old. I know that beneath my feet are the remains of centuries old London bodies. It is a gentle overlap of life and death, and perhaps also a gentle reminder of how at some point we must relinquish our attachments to life, to the rigidity of tradition, the solidity of headstones and graveyards, and that this process is ongoing. Whatever new worlds are fashioned now in response to the changes happening all around us will also in their time have to address the calcification into dogma and subsequent erosion. The brightest and best social systems are those which have at their heart the flexibility and responsiveness that is at the heart of evolution. “Hold your beliefs lightly” says Grayson Perry.
This can be hard. Whether it comes easily or not, I think it may be a necessity. Regardless of all that, I’d best get off my high horse and get going. The sun is behind a cloud, my hands are getting cold and the school run is calling.